In Montreal earlier this week, and seeking respite from the chewy heat, I ducked into a cinema that was enticing for two reasons. Of course, there was the air conditioning, which would have earned any picture 17 stars, nine thumbs up, one cry of “Masterpiece!” and a tin-foil medal even before the lights had gone down. But the choice of movie was significant too: Snowpiercer. Even if you know nothing of this much-discussed movie, the title promises crisp and replenishing refreshment. (There was no way I was going to see again the Indiana Jones trilogy, much as I admire it, which was playing in new prints at the same multiplex. Smashing films and all, but too hot. Too clammy.)
Fortunately the movie itself turned out to be a tonic. Set on an all-but-dead version of earth, scarcely 20 years into the future, the action is confined to a train so long that most people have never traversed its entire length. Since an experiment to reduce global warming backfired, freezing the planet and killing off most of its population, a band of survivors have sought refuge on this train, “Snowpiercer”, which is the creation of the enigmatic Wilford (Ed Harris, returning to the kind of puppetmaster part he took in The Truman Show).
The high-altitude train makes one revolution of the globe per year and runs on an engine that can never die. But all is not well. A brutal social hierarchy is maintained on board, from the mistreated proles in the rear carriage, who dine on black jelly of unknown provenance, to the upper class in the front sections, who have their own nightclub, hair salon, school and ecological sanctuary. Travelling back to the UK in the Economy section later that day, the film remained vividly in my memory. Can’t think why.
Revolution is in the air, and the man to lead the masses is Curtis (played by Captain America himself, Chris Evans), along with his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the guru-like Gilliam (John Hurt). The obstacles before them include the terrifying Mason, a grotesque and hilarious Northern schoolma’am with Deirdre Barlow’s glasses, Jeanette Winterson’s vocal chords, and gnashers three sizes too big for her gob. The character could only be more pleasurable if she were played by Tilda Swinton. Guess what? She’s played by Tilda Swinton.
I loved the mix-and-match nature of the casting, tone and story elements: it seemed to reflect the segmented train itself, where parts that should not by rights be adjacent to one another are bolted together all the same in a rinky-dink fashion. The director is Bong Joon-ho, best known for his demented monster movie The Host. The sensibility is a combination of steampunk, Guillermo del Toro, early Jeunet and Caro (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), Lars von Trier’s Europa and some US science-fiction movie or other gone gloriously off the rails (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension perhaps). It is far from flawless—there are too many longeurs and lapses of logic that impeded its progress along the way—but it is alive with ideas and imagination which see it across the occasional piece of imperfect track.
It is some kind of miracle that it got out. Though it nearly didn’t. With Harvey Weinstein in charge of the US rights, the journey from script to screen was never going to be a simple one. He ordered 20 minutes of cuts to the finished film, as well as a new prologue and epilogue; when Bong refused, the US release was limited to only a handful of cinemas. (VOD—video on demand—was also used as a weapon against the film. If a new release is available also in VOD, that restricts severely the number of US cinemas that will screen it, as was the case with Snowpiercer.) It still hasn’t opened in the UK, though it was screened recently at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It has been much on cinephiles’ lips for a while now. I failed to see it at the Berlin Film Festival this year when its two showings sold out in minutes, and no press screenings were made available. (I know what you’re thinking. How can such a situation exist? Feel free to write to your MP.)
I’m not happy that such an original film had such a difficult infancy. But when I saw that it was playing in Montreal, I experienced a twinge of excitement—I’m pretty sure it was that, and not a trapped nerve—that is fairly uncommon these days. Not because I’m a jaded individual whose appetites are sated by minions at the merest click of my fingers. Well, not only that. But when everything is available around the clock and all the time, it does us no harm to be denied instant gratification. I’ve had to wait a while to see Snowpiercer—yes, I know there are international DVDs available, but I didn’t want to watch such a big movie on an itsy-bitsy screen. That gave the experience an extra dimension. It didn’t make the film better than it was, but it reminded me of the value of what Frank N Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show calls “antici……………….pation.”